Category Archives: Straus list

Response to Tobin Seibers’s Disability Theory (2008)

In his 2008 monograph, Disability Theory, Tobin Siebers presents critiques of major theoretical thinkers of culture and identity including Freud, Butler, Sedgwick, and Foucault. By theorizing from the standpoint of disability identity, Siebers mixes cultural criticism with a progressive identity politics, ultimately proving the intellectual insights made possible by including disabled experience within the realm of philosophy.

On the one hand, I am drawn to Siebers’ notion that within a theoretical paradigm that recognizes disability, the social construction of identity takes on a material valence. The built environments we currently move through are built for only some of the population; those whose movements are not accommodated, both rhetorically and practically, are disabled. By examining legal cases in which spaces like courthouses, polling stations, and the like exclude disabled bodies (especially bodies of people with mobility impairments), Siebers shows how participation in American citizenship and full personhood work within a system of compulsory able-bodiedness that naturalizes able-bodied supremacy. Emerging from this hidden (but obvious) “ideology of ability,” disabled people are cast as narcissistic malingerers, flawed in their ability to use spaces properly, and thus justifiably excluded from full participation in society.

While Siebers acknowledges that critical cultural theory has provided important tools for theorizing minority identities he grapples with the way deconstructive arguments have  “obstructed the capacity for the social model [of disability] to offer a strong and rational critique of ableism based on political ideals” (81). For instance, deconstructive arguments about gender often come down to the assertion that sex/gender identities exist fully within cultural discourse, that they emerge from discourse-laden perceptual lenses through which we, as products of a given culture, come to see the world. An anti-sexist politics, in this case, aims its efforts at denaturalizing sexist gender knowledge through cultural critique and the establishment of counter discourses. Within these theories, the essentialist notion that a woman can be identified by a particular body are eschewed, and identities are rendered entirely as products of accepted social convention, language, and traditions of representation.

Siebers worries that many deconstructive theories insufficiently attend to the realities of impairment and inaccess within the built environment as constituent forces in identity formation. As he puts it, “The body is, first and foremost, a biological agent teeming with vital and often unruly forces. It is not inert matter subject to easy manipulation by social representations. The body is alive, which means that it is as capable of influencing and transforming social languages as they are capable of influencing and transforming it” (68). Here Siebers argues for the centrality of the body as a complex space that exists prior to (or perhaps simultaneous with) language and social construction. While Siebers agrees that it’s important to intervene on ableist discourse that casts disability as a personal tragedy, he believes disability politics requires that we attend to material concerns within the built environment.

At the same time that Siebers defends identity politics as a necessary anti-abelist force, he also defends the value of personal narratives about disability, rejecting the idea that they are narcissistic or further group oppression. He sees storytelling as a necessary “political process through which private emotions and thoughts are made compelling to the public imagination” by “tell[ing] stories [about disability] in a way that allows people without disabilities to recognize our reality and theirs as a common one.” He argues that “only in this way will we be recognized politically” (48). Here Seibers acknowledges the power of disability identity for revealing the workings of abelist society, for laying bare the literal construction of disabled experience by the nondisabled majority.

Because of my interests in cognitive disabilities in educational spaces, I found myself most drawn to his chapter on “Disability as Masquerade.” While the majority of Siebers’s book theorizes about disabilities produced from mobility impairments, in this chapter he explores the performative nature of invisible disabilities. I’ve written about this chapter at some length here: Siebers himself does not delve very deeply into his claim that this performative model applies to dyslexia as well as a host of other disabilities not visibly written on the body. However, I believe an investigation of the ways dyslexia is performed in educational settings will lead to a compelling analysis of the archetecture of learning and education that renders some intellectual performances disabled and others not. I will keep these arguments in mind as I delve into other performance based theories on my list with Mark, including Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure and Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling.


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Response to Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature

At the moment, I’m working through the canonical Disability Studies texts–if there can be such a thing for a discipline so young–and there are few works more iconic or influential than Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies. Arguing that literary and cultural critics have neglected serious study of disability identity and representation, Extraordinary Bodies establishes a critical methodology for naming, theorizing, and critiquing the connections between cultural representation of disability and the modern American self.

Garland Thomson argues that although literary critics have not payed much attention so far, representations of disability are actually pervasive throughout literature. These “disabled figures” (like Tiny Tim or Ahab) represent disabled people as metaphorical devices, stereotyped to the point of caricature. As these representations have become commonplace in culture, they come to set the terms for how actual disabled people are treated and how they see themselves. Garland Thomson, taking a cue from other cultural studies arguments in African American Studies and Women’s Studies, draws our attention to the functions these caricatures serve for the able-bodied authors and culture that perpetuate them. (I am reminded of Tony Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, which examines Africanist representations in the imagination of white American authors, like the good an honorable Jim in Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.) She draws a range of exampled of disability representation, especially from the American freak show stage, sentimental women’s novels, and black feminist literature.

In order to make her argument, Garland Thomson, coins a particularly useful term, “the normate.” The normate is the composite identity position held by those unmarked by stigmatized identifiers of disability (or race or gender for that matter). The normate is the imagined everyman whose self-determination, independence, rational thinking ability, and physical sturdiness makes American democracy philosophically possible. The disabled figure–the cripple, the invalid, the idiot–comes to represent everything that the normate is not. While Garland Thomson identifies this dynamic as the driving constitutive force of disability identity in American culture, she acknowledges that ability/disability distinctions have meant different things within different times and cultural contexts; in theory, this assertion opens the possibility that by resisting oppressive representations of disability, the culture of abelism might be changed.

Ultimately, Garland Thomson’s work provides an invaluable model of literary disability criticism, elucidating the rhetorical forces pervasive of both art and popular culture that cause some bodies to signify meanings that constrain both what we know about disabled people and how disabled people experience the world.

My next stop will take me a decade forward in disability theory and criticism, to Tobin Seibers’s Disability Theory. Onward!

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Response to Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998)

My first stop on my disability studies list was the Disability Studies Reader, Lennard Davis’s omnibus field-in-a-box forth edition that amasses major debates and approaches from the last four decades of disability scholarship. Feeling like I have a fair scope of the landscape, I have now decided to dig in to the “classics” of the field, and I could think of no better place to start than Simi Linton’s iconic Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998).

Linton is on the shortlist of disability scholars everyone cites; I knew from reputation alone that her work was foundational in establishing academic disability studies in the liberal arts. She brings together knowledge from disability activism and argues for its place in the academy, calling into being the field we know today as disability studies. And in so doing, she also critiques the segregation of academic disability knowledge-making within applied fields that have traditionally held exclusive expertise on disability and impariment, especially fields that train nondisabled people to “care for” disabled people. Mining her own insights as a disabled person and employing the social model of disability, Linton critiques the deterministic way that most academic fields that discuss disability approach it as a problem to be solved, a tragedy to be remediated, and–as much as possible–an unfortunate occurrence to be avoided. Her book calls for a new kind of academic study of disability, one that investigates disability as a social and cultural phenomenon, one that resists the medicalization of disability, and one that seeks to educate disabled and nondisabled people alike to support a future in which disabled people might participate actively and be respected and valued for their unique personhood.

One important assertion of Linton’s argument is that disabled people’s perspectives on disability have been systematically ignored in favor of how nondisabled people imagine them to be. Perhaps in response and as a kind of corrective, Linton–who outs herself as disabled early in the book–speaks fiercely from her own perspective in her critiques. For instance, on the topic of doctor-assisted suicide, she plainly calls it murder, rather than hedging her argument in politically correct relativistic thinking about differing cultural opinions about the value of life. Likewise, when evaluating the quality of other discipline’s knowledge about disability, she sees any model that inadequately comprehends the social or cultural manifestations of disability as insufficient (largely without presenting evidence of this insufficiency). In this way, the book takes on a polemical quality that decries institutional injustices in a confrontation fundamentally rooted in self-assertion: Linton’s own claiming of disability, then, becomes the powerhouse of theory and critique.

I don’t mean to claim that the book is poorly argued, though I feel that it does present many perspectives we must accept as true without their being proven. I do not think this work would convince people within the applied fields she discusses to change their medicalized understandings of, or paternalistic approaches toward, disability. The main work of this book is to articulate the exigence of forming a new field of Disability Studies whose mission it would be to integrate perspectives from disability activism into the work of the university. She claims that this field’s work could have larger positive effects on the lives of disabled (and nondisabled) people outside university walls, but proving this is so is not the work of her argument, I think.

I don’t know how useful Linton’s work will be to my own scholarship going forward. While many of the topics she discusses are useful to the topics of learning disabilities and education, her focus in this book tends to lean toward talking about disabled people with mobility or sensory impairments. Her discussion of overcoming narratives in her second chapter caught my interest, though I will likely find more in-depth confrontation with overcoming narratives elsewhere. Likewise, her discussion of the disability politics involved in distinctions between special education and inclusive education models, while compelling, speaks in broad strokes about education schemes and possible alternatives. She seems to be calling for further investigation by the field she conjures in this book, and in that it presents more openings than it does answers.


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Reflections and Plans: 3 week check-in


I’ve been working on my lists for three weeks now, and I thought it felt about time for a checkin and self evaluation. I’ve written seven reading response posts and tried a few different formats, with differing results. I have also dealt with a range of text styles which have challenged me, including multimodal webtexts, philosophical lectures, and an enormously wide-ranging subject reader. There have also been new developments, like getting my proposal accepted for CCCC, which are making me think about where my next moves will be on my lists after I get done with my current pile.

In this post, I want to evaluate my progress so far and lay out my strategy for the next month or so of work. I mean this to be helpful to my advisors–Mark McBeth, Joe Straus, and Jason Tougaw–as a way to get a sense of what I’m working on and what I’m thinking without our having to find time to meet too frequently. I know how time is for all of us.

First I reflect on the texts I’ve read and the challenges I ran into (probably most relevant to Joe). Then I talk about my ideas for my essay project on LD identity and dyslexia memoirs, which is relevant to my next reading steps for Joe and Jason’s lists. Finally, I talk about my disability service provider research project that just got picked up for CCCC, and how I can use Mark’s list to get me there. I welcome feedback of any kind, on any part, from any audience.

1) Reflections:

I have been relatively happy with my pace. Since starting my reading/writing schedule three weeks ago, I have gotten through one book (Austin’s How to Do Things With Words), nine new chapters of the Disability Studies Reader, and an eight-author webtext that was about equivalent to an entire journal article worth of articles, Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces. I also wrote a new draft of my complete orals lists, including a draft of the list rationale statement that must accompany the lists when I submit them to the department. You can see the lists, which are broken down into sub-topics, here.

All this, and I lost an entire week, nearly, conferencing with my students for their start-of-term writing consultation. (40ish in a week–draining but effective). Now that that’s over, I should be able to concentrate more on my reading.

I faced a few research challenges in this first push. First, I had to figure out how to reflect on something so large and abstract as Austin’s speech act theory in a single post. I ended up providing my own practical testing ground by imagining the pedagogical applications of Austin’s theories about performatives. This helped me extract what I really needed from Austin, I think.

My next problem was one of medium, figuring out how to consume, interpret, and reflect on a multi-part webtext about “access studies,” an emerging discourse in composition disability studies that employs some language and concerns from outside wheelhouse. While I’m interested in technology and access, it’s really not my primary interest in thinking about disability issues in higher education. So discussions about screen reader technology or image captioning were informative, but not alluring.  It is, however, an important strand of the new composition/disability discourse I’m exploring on Jason’s list. In the end, I did a scattershot approach here, summarizing all the pieces of the webtext rather than synthesizing them together. I led a talk on this webtext for our GC Comp Rhet area group meeting shortly after writing my post. I think I was able to do some of that synthesis there.

Finally I had my first anthology battle. I’d read about half of the Disability Studies Reader (4th edition) for Joe’s class last Spring, but I knew there were quite a few articles in it I wanted to get to. Many introduce key disability studies terms of discourses that I simply don’t know much about. And while they’re not central to my dissertation project, I would like to be able to teach disability studies classes someday, and this will require me to be somewhat conversant in issues like prenatal testing or the history of the ADA. So, I wanted to use the text to give me a general overview in the field before I dive in to specific discourses. However, I also didn’t want to get bogged down in the scope of the reader, which at over 500 pages could easily keep me still for the whole month if I let it. In the end I decided to try these things: (1) skip chapters that are by authors whose books I’m reading later (i.e. Davis’s chapters which are also in his books, Siebers’s, Garland-Thomson, McRuer); (2) write mostly about the ones with relevance to my dissertation work, but take good notes on all of them; (3) leave some to come back to later if I have time. I have three more chapters to go, and I’m looking forward to digging in to a single author for a while.

2) New (revised) DS seminar paper idea

I feel like the project I’ve been working on for my incomplete Disability Studies seminar paper has finally died for good. I went through many, many drafts of that thing and still couldn’t find my way to an argument. I feel I had so many disparite topics I wanted to weave together, I couldn’t actually find something definite to say. I think it’s time for me to set that project down and consider other options. Looking backward worn’t help me move forward on these lists.

One option I’m pursuing is using this blog to generate an essay, rather than planning the argument in advance based on texts I’ve already read. By directing my reading choices based on the themes and ideas that emerge from one text to another, I can gather multiple responses on a general topic, perhaps allowing an argument to emerge and develop over a number of posts. This will help me take some of the pressure off of needing to have every move of my essays planned from the get go. Also, because I’m following leads as I go, the writing will likely have an exploratory quality and energy to it I often lost when fiddling with the old drafts.

But that’s all about method, what about topic? I think the best thing I wrote for Joe’s class was my essay about LD identity and Tobin Sieber’s notion of disability as masquerade. I was able to take his model for disability performance and use it to establish an argument for learning disability as performance, and literacy as the controlling ideological force governing the performance. I also got to draw examples from my own experience, Mooney and Schultz’s dyslexia memoirs, and some pop culture representations of dyslexia I’m interested in, especially The Cosby Show. You can see the original essay here: Learning Disability as Masquerade

I think it would make sense for me to direct my immediate reading efforts on my disability studies list toward the goal of fleshing out and developing this paper. My next stop will be, I think, Siebers’ Disability Theory, which should give me a more contextualized version of the theory I was responding to in that draft. That will be my only theoretical apparatus for this project (I hope!), and the rest of my efforts will be spent on drawing examples from a small archive of the LD texts with which to test the fit of Seiber’s theories for LD. In addition to the memoirs and the Cosby episodes about Theo’s dyslexia, I’ve also discovered a fabulous after-school special about dyslexia starring Jaquin and River Phoenix called Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984), which will match with the other texts very well I think. I will also, as before, draw from my own anecdotal experience to fill in whatever research gaps remain between me and a finished seminar paper. Once I get through these initial texts, I can ask Joe where else I could look on my lists to develop my thinking on the topic, and use his suggestions to guide my next steps in the reading and writing process. And so, in little steps forward, I might actually write a seminar paper.

3) Disability research in CUNY for CCCC talk

The second hopeful development is that I got a proposal accepted at this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in Indianapolis. I missed the message for several days as it sat in my spam box, and I’d assumed I hadn’t gotten in. I was bummed: I had proposed to discuss the initial results from a series of interviews with disability service providers around CUNY and a preliminary analysis of CUNY institutional documents about disability, including DSO websites and public resources. Getting in was to be my motivation to actually conduct those interviews and start my analysis in a timely fashion, forcing me to have something to show by March. I used the CWPA talk in July for the same purpose, as a motivation to revise the research project I began in Mark’s class and sketch out the scope of the next step in my research.

Well, since I have gotten in after all, it looks like the research plan’s back on. I’d love to start by trying to get a meeting with Chris Rosa, the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at CUNY central. I met him when I was putting on the English program graduate conference two years ago with Emily Stanback and Marrisa Brostoff. (Check out the conference website here.) Dr. Rosa has been a driving force in disability policy and discourse within CUNY since he himself graduated from the GC–not to mention his influence and contributions as executive officer of the Society of Disability Studies.

He would be in a unique position to help me access whatever documents or data or stories exist that would help me construct an institutional history of disability in CUNY. He would also be in a position to help me understand the logistic and legal terrain I’m getting into by asking questions about disability services at CUNY. Perhaps he could point me toward particular people at campuses who would have further leads, or be good interview subjects. This assumes, of course, he’s not too busy to see me and actually sees merit in my research. I’ll do as much research on these questions as I can alone first, of course.

I’m essentially planning to steer my reading work for Mark and Jason over the next one or two month push toward supporting these two projects. I’ve already talked through my plan for linking Joe’s list to the dyslexia masquerade essay. Jason’s list contains a number of the foundational dyslexia and LD works I’ll need to be able to draw upon to write that piece as well, and these should give me some ways to crack open that list on academic disability in a real way. I can do Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled, which gives an excellent overview of the various strands of LD scholarship (including neuroscience, literacy studies, and composition discourses around the topic); my work will be responding to Dunn’s pretty directly, I think, and my lists draw heavily from her own bibliography (with my spin, of course). She will remind me of the lay of the land and help me plan my next moves. Those next moves might take me to the LD memoirs, but I’m not committed to that yet. I may also want to spend some time with the early cognitive comp folks (Rose, Flower, Elbow).

For the moment, I’m working to finish up Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (2010), the second monograph I’m tacking on Mark’s list. I bumped it to the top of the pile because Dr. Davidson is coming to the GC in two weeks to give a job talk, and I’ll get the chance to meet her. Obviously, I’m eager to get a good understanding of her work before she gets here. I should be done with Future of Thinking by Monday so I can go on to Now You See It, which I understand more directly addresses issues of ADHD and new literacy.

Once I get through Davidson’s work, I want to direct my reading on Mark’s list toward supporting my CCCC research project. Since my main concern in this draft of the project will be sketching out an institutional history of disability administration at CUNY, I will want to get some models for other institutional histories. I’ll look at George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010) as well as some texts I poached from Mark’s archive class about basic writing and Open Admissions history. If I can narrow down any texts that will model interview-based research methods, that would be nice too. Suggestions are very welcome. Perhaps the texts on institutional criticism methods will be a nice place to go next.

To anyone who made it this far: thanks for reading. I welcome your feedback or encouragement either in comments or in an email to me at

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Queer Analogies and Crip Intersections: Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming Out”

In this article, Samuels investigates analogies between the experience of non-visibly disabled people and queer people. While she explores experiences that these two groups share (such as their shared relationship to discourses of “passing” and “coming out”), Samuel’s main objective in this piece is to put pressure on the ways analogies of identity and oppression can oversimplify the complex differences between analagized groups. Rather than accepting easy analogies that tend to make all experiences seem equivalent (epitomized in sex-race analogies, for instance when white feminists have analogized their own oppression to the oppression of black civil rights activists), Samuels believes investigating analogies can provide a more nuanced understanding about of marginal identities like femme lesbian and nonvisible disabled person.

While it is commonplace to use language of “coming out” to discuss both queer and invisibly disabled experience, Samuels argues that the two kinds of coming out differ in significant ways. Within disability contexts as in queer contexts, “coming out” is often used with two different meanings. On the one hand, “coming out” as disabled can sometimes mean claiming a positive self-identity as disabled, rejecting internalized ablest beliefs about the inferiority of disabled people. For those who have invisible disabilities, especially chronic illnesses, coming out takes on a second meaning, most often in the sense of “coming out to” as in revealing oneself to be disabled to others. Here the analogy with queer identities is most concrete, as it is those who can “pass” as able bodied who are in a position to do this second sort of outing.

Within both discourses, queer and disabled, passing as normative is often seen as evidence of internalized oppression. To pass is to reject public recognition as disabled or queer. But for those whose disability isn’t written on the body, there exist limited options for publically performing their disability. And when disability is claimed in the absence of physical signifiers, it is often disbelieved by both disabled and nondisabled people alike.

Some have claimed that femme lesbian identity may serve a disruptive force to cultural gender norms by recasting traditionally heterosexual femininity within the context of lesbian erotic desire. However, there tends to be no disabled equivalent to the eroticism of femme identity. The one expeception to this limitation, Samuels argues, can be found in the border identity of the disabled femme. Samuels closes by examining the ways femme lesbians reframe their own self image to include their own disabled bodies.

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I’ve thought about analogies between queerness and invisible disabilities before, especially in considering LD experience and gay male notions of coming out. In particular, I’ve thought about these issues in relation to Sieber’s idea of disability as masquerade, and I’ll likely think about them again when I dig into Sieber’s work in Disability Theory.

I take away from this reading a deeper anxiety about using analogies between different identity experiences. I am already wary about analogizing LD experience with other disabled experiences, particularly because I am so easily able to pass as able bodied in most social contexts. I am used to having to come out as LD, and to people being surprised. Because I am well acclimated to academic life, I usually know how to appear comfortable and at home in environments where other, more severely LD people would be conspicuous. Even if I accept that LD and other disabilities share analogous qualities in relations to the ideas of “normalcy,” as Davis-style disability theory would hold, I feel great unease approaching any analogies between my experience of LD and other disabilities that I (problematically) imagine as more real (because more visible), for instance disabled people who use wheelchairs or have sensory impairments.

One avenue where problematic analogies are most likely to emerge in my thinking about LD and literacy-related disabilities relate to issues of race and ethnicity. ESL students and people who speak with nonstandard (usually racially marked) dialects are often functionally disabled within mainstream literacy education. The stigma of illiteracy affects these populations in similar ways to how they effect LD people, and indeed, medicalized language often works its way into discussions about the deficiency of basic writers or the remediation of ESL students. However, as I ‘m sure I will discover when I investigate the histories of ESL and BW teaching over the last few decades, there are likely important distinctions between these populations as well. I will have to think about this further as I read Patricia Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled and George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s history of basic writing–both of which are next on my lists for Jason and Mark, respectively.

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Disabling ideas: Douglas C Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History”

Douglas Baynton argues in this article that historians should see disability as a central issue in American history, rather than a special topic of interest only to those who study the lives of disabled people. To illustrate this point, he draws together historical narratives of three major political debates in American history that do not–on face value–seem related to disability: the women’s sufferage movement, debates over slavery and civil rights for black Americans, and the implementation of immigration restrictions. In each of these debates, Baynton argues that the concept of disability plays a key role in justifying the discriminatory practices laid out in law. For instance, politicians and scientists in the 19th century frequently argued that enslaved black Americans were constitutionally unfit for full civic participation; their bodies and minds were built for captivity. Similarly, women’s constitutional infirmities were used to justify excluding them from the franchise.

Interestingly, because disability is key to way social exclusion or disenfranchisement is justified, in order to contradict the logic of exclusion, women and ethnic or racial minority advocates often devoted their energy to proving that they were not in fact disabled, and thus didn’t deserve to be treated as such. Implicit in all of these arguments, Baynton argues, is a naturalized assumption that it is, in fact, logical and justifiable to exclude or keep disenfranchised people who really are disabled.

One project in this article is to show how negative stigmas deployed about race, gender, and nationality current throughout the 19th century all deploy tropes of disability. To get us here, Bynton summarizes the pre-19th century conception of “the natural” and “the monstrous” as opposing poles in relation to a perceived notion of what God intended humans and animals to be. In the 19th century, as Davis has argued, the concept of “the normal” and “the abnormal” emerged. The normal became a category that idealized white male virtues as the standard, and framed women, people of color, and foreigners as abnormal, often attributing their differences to some sort of hereditary deficiency.

This argument makes me recall debates about open admissions and the exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities from college education in America. Indeed, as I think further, I think of the kinds of justifications examined by Virginia Woolf regarding the exclusion of women from British universities as late as the early 20th century. She talks about this most concretely in A Room of One’s Own, and it would be compelling to read this piece for its engagement with disability arguments about women’s capacities for education.

In his article, “The Language of Exclusion” Mike Rose analyzes the language administrators use to talk about “remedial” students. Like Baynton, he shows that we tend to deploy metaphors of disability in order to justify our exclusionary stance toward people with racial or cultural differences from our own perceived “normal” position as white, middle-class educators and administrators. Rose argues that this is inappropriate: that our students are not disabled and are not illiterate, but that we use terms like this to discuss them because we hold an overly medicalized view of their differences. We see student difficulties as pathological, so that the student whose language and learning abilities make them a good fit for the university become cast as “normal,” and students who have trouble learning or performing in university sponsored literacy tasks possess abnormal or underdeveloped abilities. He argues that the history of basic writing and remediation are, in essence, histories of disability.

I will think more about this idea on Mark’s list, particularly in reading Rebecca Mlynarczyk and George Otte’s Basic Writing. I wonder if those who argued for including women, minorities, and foreigners on our colleges also had to distance the stigma of disability in order to do it. That is, did they have to maintain that there indeed are populations of people who need to be excluded from college life, but that women/black people/immigrants didn’t fit into this category? Something to follow up going forward.


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Institutions and Incarceration: Liat Ben-Moshe “‘The Institution Yet to Come’: Analyzing Incarceration Through a Disability Lens”

This article attempts to show the theoretical, historical, and pragmatic connections between systems of institutionalized confinement for mentally disabled people and for those in the criminal justice system. Ben-Moshe believes that recent analyses of the “rise of incarseration” do not sufficiently take into account the populations incarcerated within public and private institutions against their will.

Indeed, Ben-Moshe argues that the marked increase of imprisonment rates corelates to a related increase in the diagnosis of severe mental illness and the incorporation of costodial care for the mentally disabled with the prision complex. Both types of confinement are justified under a logic of exclusion, wherein perceived dangerous or uncontrolable individuals are sequestered for permanent segregation, rather than integration with the community. A disability studies influenced critique of the prison system would advocate for the mental care of those in prisons and for programs that work to redress economic inequalities that lead to poverty, crime, and often, disablement.

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I initially chose this piece hoping it would give me insights for thinking about institutions that segregate and “serve” populations with cognitive impairment. It turned out that the article focuses much more strongly on tracking important trends in public policy surrounding demographic shifts in prisons and mental facilities.

The Foucaultian concept of the hybrid discourse may be useful. Ben-Moshe employs the term to refer to the cross-discursive matrix that surrounds imprisonment: doctors and judges collaborating in the “care” of these different sets of undesirable citizens. I wonder if the concept would help to think of the intersection of medical and educational discourses that characterize learning disability discourse.

*** Next up from the Disability Studies Reader: Douglas C Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” and Elizabeth D. Emens, “Disabling Attitudes: U.S. Disability Law and the ADA Amendments Act”

*** Also reading: Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.

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Coming to Terms with Madness, Illness, and disabilities of mind: Margaret Price, “Defining Mental Disability”

In this article, Margaret Price examines a range of different terms that are used to refer to “mental disability.” Her aim is to examine the different context in which each of the terms is used, examining the social and cultural function of each of the following: madness, consumer/survivor/ex-patient, mentally ill, neurodiverse, mental disability, and psychosocial disability. Price sees the business of examining names in this way to be integral to disability studies politics, as the names might often signify of inequality or oppression or alternately fuel coalition building and activism. Names teach us a great deal about the culture of our “here and now,” as much as they have potential to direct the future.

“Mad” offers the same kind of blanket appeal as “queer,” taking in huge diversity but also providing a coalition-building power, as in MindFreedom International and the Mad Pride movement. Emerging from this movement have come terms like “psychiatric system survivor” and other iterations that identify a person as a current or former recipiant of psychiatric medical “care.” Here people identify that they now or once held a patient role, and it is from this postition that they often argue agaisnt the oppressive treatment of the medical establishment.

The medical industrial complex (including doctors and insurance providors) use a definition of “mental illness” to conceive of madness, wherein individuals are seen as mentally unwell and in need of treatment to return them to a state of “mental health.”The mental illness paragigm is especially powerful because the mad person must comply with their diagnosis and submit to prescribed “care,” “which may include medication, incarceration, or electroscock.” One faction of doctors and activists, the postpsychiatry movement, have rejected this paradigm as inherently oppressive and argued instead argued for establishing a psychiatric care system that would serve the desires of c/s/x folks as well.

Mental illnesses don’t seem to fit within the paradigm of disability, since under this definition they are temporary and potentially curable. For instance, it seems as if the interests of c/s/x people and those in the neurodiversity movement may be incompatible. Price draws on the work of Cyntia Lewiecki-Wilson to offer the term “mental disability” to unite these disparte groups under one theoretical frame: as disabilities perceived to reside in the mind, these conditions, she believes, share a similar rhetorical disenfranchisement. Those believed to be mad or autistic or otherwise mentally impaired are disempowered as rhetors.

Price offers a final term that may be especially useful to my own discussions of cognitive difference in higher education. She argues that these disabilities are not “invisible” in the traditional sense, but instead “apparitional,” in that they appear through behavior and in specific circumstanses. This is essentially what I was trying to get at in my last post on stigma of mental illness in universities. She calls these conditions “psychosocial disabilities,” mental disabilities that emerge in relation to particular social conditions. It acknowledges that the experience of mental difference is embodied, but that it’s also rendered as disability not through inevitability but through social convention. While Price finds this last term most theoretically useful, she acknowledges that it is too theoretically complex for much coalition building. In the end, she settles on mental disability as the most practical and powerful term available for conceptualizing mental difference.

* * *

Price’s work continues to prove important to my thinking. The concept of mental disability may work well for helping me define academic disability, which is essentially a specific iteration of psychosocial disability. I’m aware that definitional distinctions like these work at an untennible level of abstraction without some kind of real-world applicability. What good is it, really, to fuss around with terms like this? Price claims that the terms we use have impacts on the power dynamics that end up surrounding the labled person. So, if the terms we accept are “mental illness” and the like, it–what? causes?–requires that those so labled accept their role as patient and submit to normalization under the guise of cure. Or, if we use terms like “mental disability” we are more prone to see these conditions for their social and cultural components, motivating those so labled to seek coalition with other disabled people.

I’m not sure I fully comprehend the relationship between terminology and change. That is, I’m curious about the connection between the discourse Price identifies and the contexts in which she sets it. She shows how the language we use to define mental disability often matches the social structure in which it has meaning, but I wonder if she’s saying there’s causality. That is, does using the term “mental illness” really perpetuate the system of psychiatric discrimination? Is the problem discursive, and thus best addressed through a discursive critique?

To be clear, Price states early on that she’s not trying to advocate one term over another. She only claims that the terms we use right now show us something about the social contexts in which they exist. That they explain, in some way, the workings of the psychiatric establishment or the mad power movement or disability activism. Still, I find the connection between the discourse and the social context as it’s actually experienced to be difficult to untangle.

Price spends a great deal of this essay modeling her own idea development process as she moved from one term to another; it’s pretty hard not to read her progression of terms as a development toward the most empowering and politically effective term. There’s a politics of activism behind this search, and experiences of activism and coalition building throughout the rhetoric of personal narrative used in this piece.  Indeed, this is one of the most admirable things about the piece, which I now realize I omitted completely from my summary. Price employs her personal experiences to walk us from her history of medical treatment, to seeing herself as a survivor as a possible participant in the s/c/x movement, to a moment of claiming disability at the end. It tracks her own journey for definition.

I was leading toward this method myself in my paper on learning disabilities I have been working on for Joe. This article might provide a useful model, since my work was trying to lead up to a definition of terms in this same way. I could explore how my own self definition of dyslexia, LD, and academic disability have evolved, and consider some of the contextual implications of each.

*** Up next from the Disability Studies Reader: Liat Ben-Moshe, “‘The Institution Yet to Come’: Analyzing Incarceration Through a Disability Lens”

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Stigma three ways: Brown, Coleman Lerita. “Stigma: An Enigma Demystified”

While stigma is a key term in disability studies, social scientist Lorita Coleman Brown argues that most scholars who employ the term are not aware of the multiple dimensions of stigma. Brown examines the “behavioral,” “cognitive,” and “affective” components of stigma and argues that social stigmitization emerges in response to “the dilemma of difference.”

Brown begins with Irving Groffman’s concept of stigma as a mark of difference that makes one undesired in a particular social setting. Stigmas might be marked by embodied qualities like skin color or sex, or they might be demarkated by religious or polotical affiliation. Which stigmas disqualify a person from access to social power (use of rights, access to wealth, protection from discrimination, etc) changes from one cultural moment to the next. As it is a part of the social order, stigma it affects everyone–regardless of whether the individual is marked with a negative stigma or not. For example, current social stigmas about fatness affect me and my self image, even though I’m thin.

Brown examines the way children learn to stigmatize socially undesired differences. She argues that through the process of social learning, children are taught to modify their in-born curiosity response to recognizing human variation to a fear response that they intuit from parental interaction. Children learn which sorts of differences identify a category of person, and they also learn which categories of people they should have negative or positive feelings about. Identifying someone as stigmatized or not can be seen as a form of social cognition that must be learned. (Not fully sure I understand what she means by social cognition. Perhaps a thinking task that’s part of being in social life?)

Beyond this cognitive component of stigma, further social effects are maintained when stereotyped beliefs about strigmatized populations work their way into accepted social behavior, especially when these beliefs justify social exclusion and lowered expectations for success for stigmazied people. This negative social status enforces the affective component of stigma, which is a felt desire to avoid or distance oneself from stigmatized individuals which brown identifies as “fear.”

Ultimately, Brown wants to show that social scientific research on stigma could have important implications for understanding a wealth of social phenomena, including the distribution of power/wealth along sex or race lines. She wants economists and anthropologists to investigate stigma and its relation to social power across cultures, economic systems, time periods, and reasons.


The first connection I draw between stigma and my interest in academic culture relates to stigmas against students with mental disabilities. The work of Margaret Price examines this element, so maybe I’ll go to her essay for my next post. If students are flagged as psychotic or seriously depressed, we see their position in the university change dramatically. Students who are marked different as “mentally unstable” in some way enter a medicalized wing of the university system: their continued presence on campuses becomes monitored by physicians and service providers, and lack of complaince can result in expulsion. (fix that syntax so it’s not terrible to read.) As Price discusses in her 2011 Mad At School, diagnosis of many so-called mental illnesses stands as legitimate grounds for expulsion in many American universities [citation needed]. These discriminatory practices are justified by legal necessity to avoid liability for knowingly allowing mentally ill people to harm themselves or others within their institution. In this, I could understand a good connection to Brown’s notion that stigma is connected to stereotyped fear.

At the local level in classrooms, stigma against mental illness is pervades the language of rationality and sanity, pervading academic discourse. See  particularly Bowers’s essay in this fall’s issue of Kairos for an interesting discussion on this point, where the argues against saneist language in the classroom: “Inclusive Language” See also my post on the Kairos webtext from the beginning of September. This language speaks to a cultural acceptance of beliefs that mental illness is goes along with deminished intellectual value and unacademic values.

The most interesting thing for me is considering mental disability in academia from the first quality of stigma that Brown uses. Unlike stigmas written on the body, mental disabilities are not typically visible, except on medical disclosure forms, of course. Instead, because mental illness is associated with “abnormal behavior” like acting emotionally volatile, depressed in productivity or motivation, or generally irrational [resisting scare quotes].

These behaviors often manifest themselves in relation to the performance of academic tasks, that is, doing the work students do: class discussions, homework, exams, while studying. I see possible connections here to the cognitive disabilities I’m concerned about elsewhere on Jason’s list. The behaviors associated with mental illness read as fundamentally inconsistent with participation in academic culture. They also sit as the flip side of the academic abilities valued by most academics, especially rationality and intellectual control. I’ll think about this further when reading Price’s work.

* * * Next up: Margaret Price: “Defining Mental Disability” from the Disability Studies Reader





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